Wednesday, June 10, 2015


   For the longest time now, I’ve been thinking of writing a post titled “Dolby Atmos: What Happened?” Because, quite frankly, after the initial excitement over Atmos at last year’s CEDIA Expo, Dolby’s new object-based surround sound system seems to have run out of steam. So far only twelve Blu-ray discs have been released supporting the format, and only three of them are actually worth owning. So, why haven’t I written that long, lugubrious post about the lackluster studio support for Atmos thus far? Because I think the format still has potential. And the main reason I think that is because of Dolby’s biggest competitor, DTS, and the upcoming release of its own object-based surround sound system,DTS:X.
   DTS:X is finally about to start making its way to market, and although we’re still not sure just how similar it will be to Dolby Atmos, we nonetheless know that it features overhead speakers and object-based mixing, where the sound delivered to each speaker isn’t necessarily mixed specifically for that speaker, but rather in virtual 3D space that can be mapped to different speaker configurations. DTS:X even takes its object-based nature to extremes that Atmos doesn’t by allowing you to do things like adjust the loudness of dialogue relative to the rest of the mix (even sounds that will end up being produced by the center channel. The format also allows for much more flexible speaker placement.
   Mind you, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the exact implementation of DTS:X—like whether or not it will support floorstanding speakers with upward firing drivers that bounce the overhead information off the ceiling, or modules that can be placed on top of your existing speakers. Recent announcements seem to indicate that these speakers will be supported, but to what degree isn’t known yet. We can say for sure, though, that a number of receivers will support both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X with the same hardware.

   Onkyo’s TX-NR646 and TX-NR747 network A/V receivers, for example, are slated to appear on the market sometime in June, and were designed with both object-based surround sound formats in mind. Both come packed with 32-bit DSP Engines and a new 384 kHz/32-bit AK4458 DAC from Asahi-Kasei. Both support High Dynamic Range video, 21:9 ultra-widescreen aspect ratios, and of course 4K streaming and Blu-ray via their eight HDMI inputs and two outputs. Both also support next-gen HDCP 2.2 copy protection. Onkyo is also promising a newly updated version of its AccuEQ speaker calibration system. All of which gives us a good indication of what Integra’s new installation-oriented receivers and surround processors will look like in the coming months.

   Both receivers support up to 5.1.2-channel speaker configurations, which means two front channels, two surround channels, a center speaker, and two speakers overhead. The TX-NR646 will be available in early June for $699 MSRP, with the TX-NR747 following later in the month for $999 MSRP.

   Getting back to DTS:X specifically for a moment, the first Blu-ray disc to support the format has been announced already. It will be Ex Machina, one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in ages, which makes it infinitely better than the initial slate of Atmos releases. But I still can’t see this news as anything other than good for those who have already bought into Dolby Atmos. The more DTS:X is supported by the film studios that gravitate toward DTS, the more the market will be primed for object-based surround mixes, and the more likely Dolby-leaning studios will be to release some better films in Atmos. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say. So don’t write the home version of Atmos off as a shipwreck just yet. DTS:X could well be the best thing to happen to Dolby’s new sound format.